Politics in California—I

by Ronnie Dugger | June 2, 1958

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THE ROLE of a prophet is always an uneasy one, but I would venture to predict that, in spite of all the logical explanations and in spite of better organization by the Democratic Party and more unity within, California will be the home of many political independents and the maker of political upsets for some time yet to come. A state which has produced a Hiram Johnson, an Earl Warren, and a Culbert Olson, not to mention a Richard Nixon, and the rising star of Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, hasn’t been a dull place and has, in addition, produced a state government which has met successfully the needs of an expanding population and industrial growth unmatched by any other state.

IN A WAY, it would be almost a shame to see California become a predictable and politically normal state. In the 1930’s it was known as the home of crackpot social ideas, yet I have the feeling that some of those ideas generated more progressive thoughts and resulted in more progressive actions than might otherwise have been the case.

THE NEW REPUBLIC and Mr. Ronnie Dugger are performing an unusual service in undertaking to clear the fog that generally surrounds a review of the California political situation. Five years from now I hope The New Republic will review the changes between this series of articles and the situation which will then exist.

-REP. JAMES ROOSEVELT

A COOL Western day three weeks ago I walked innocent, ignorant, without friends or enemies, across the wide green lawns of the Sacramento capitol grounds into the fearfully complicated labyrinth of California politics. Tonight, in the tradition of the helicopter experts, I know all about it. Not all I saw is in the notes beside me—the bluewater mountain lake Ta- hoe, the long Pacific seacoast with edges of roads crumbling into foam far below, the “high desert”—Joshua-tree-covered and looking as though the sand would be a lover if you lay in it at night, the little Chinese boy in San Francisco sucking on a sherbet stick and holding on to the back of an open trolleycar pulling itself up the track uphill; the appalling quagmire of commercial joints and automobile rivers that is Los Angeles—a city of Auto Park. If one could figure out what is beyond figuring out: why Californians as a whole and one by one do not much care, then the elbow-arm of California might once again scoop up the nation in a muscling revival of hope and reform. With all this movement from morning to evening, and half a million new people a year, no idea is too new, no tradition too deep, no dream too sweet, for the people.

Ever since progressive Hiram Johnson poured his contempt for party politics across the California statute books this has been a no-party state. Across it have stalked first Southern Pacific, then the Progressives, the Otises and Chandlers of the Los Angeles Times, Republicans, the “End Poverty in California” followers of Upton Sinclair the Townsendites, the Earl Warren non-partisan pro-labor Republicans, and now Pat Brown and his Earl Warren Democrats. Republicans have controlled the state for 64 years, a long sufferance during which only two Democrats have been elected Governor. The legislature has been Republican-dominated throughout the 20th Century except for the 1938 and 1957 terms. In 1952, six years ago, the Republicans controlled the Senate, 29-11, and the Assembly, 54-26; had a 19-11 majority in the Congressional delegation; had both United States Senators and the Governor; had 69 percent of the “non-partisan” statewide elective offices. California, although one of the great farm and industrial states with a labor movement now of 1.4 million members, 800,000 Latin Americans, 650,000 Negroes, a substantial number of Orientals, and a large Jewish community, ranked in 1952 as one of the safest Republican fairways on the national course. The California GOP had presented to the nation not only Earl Warren, but also Dick Nixon and William Knowland; the California Democrats had presented no one.

 

TODAY the Democrats have a 20-20 split in the Senate and have organized that body for the first time since 1889; they have closed the Republicans’ majority in the assembly to 43-37 and in Congress to 17-13; they have cut t h e GOP-held non-partisan offices to 54 percent; they are considered nearly certain to win the governor- ship for the first time since 1938; and they have an even chance of winning the US Senate seat GOP Senate Minority Leader Knowland resigned to run for Governor so he can run for President. They expect, and are expected, to win out the legislature cleanly by I960 in time to re- district the state according to the I960 census to the extensive benefit of Democrats in California and the US House of Representatives. They are about to present the nation with one Edmund G. “Pat” Brown, an Irish Catholic lawyer from San Francisco who will have little excuse if he is not California’s next Governor.

The March unemployment figures for California show 449,000 workers, eight out of every 100 in California, without work. The purchasing power of Los Angeles-Long Beach factory workers fell in March to the lowest level in two and a half years. The Los Angeles cost-of-living index is 125 percent of 1947-1949; San Francisco meat, fruit and vegetable prices went up 9-10 percent the last quarter-year. The cost of living is on everyone’s mind. So say the “depth surveys” the pros quote darkly, and so says a box-office girl at the Globe moviehouse in Los Angeles. But Democratic candidates, and particularly Brown, are benefiting not only from the economic discontent but from three really rich Republican goof-ups.

Democrats have had the majorities in voter registration
in California since the depression. Their January 1,
1958, margin was 3,215,804 to 2,423,724 Republicans, about four to three, and it is reported larger for the June
 3 primary voting. Under Hiram Johnson’s cross-filing
system, however, any candidate could file on any party
ticket without designating his party affiliation, and as
 UCXA’s Dean McHenry has shown, this heavily favored 
incumbents, mostly Republicans. The first mistake was
 made in 1954. Republican pundit (and power) Kyle Palmer, political editor of the Los Angeles Times, a crinkly-whitehaired man who wears bowties and business suits and sits in a corner of an office at his typewriter opening his own mail and writing his own letters and weekly sending forth the Republicans’ Sunday encyclical on the Times editorial page, thought to finesse a ballot proposal to abolish cross-filing by advancing as an alternative party labeling of the candidates on the ballots. His alternative passed, and about the same time the Democrats were organizing on a statewide basis. Election-by-popularity-in-the-Republican-press was on the way out.

The second mistake was blundering Bill Knowland’s decision to run for Governor against the Republican incumbent. Goodie Knight. Although San Francisco Mayor George Christopher says Knight told him on his honor three times, in the presence of both their wives, he would not run for the Senate, Knight, “cut off at the pockets,” as they say, and probably intimidated by firm reports from Washington that Nixon would support Knowland against him, withdrew from the Governor’s race and announced for the Senate—Nixon blessing his new candidacy. But not only have the voters refused to smile indulgently upon this penthouse-level game of musical chairs, they are so confused or indignant that slightly more than half of them may vote for little-known Rep. Clair Engle rather than let Knight replace Knowland in Washington.

The third goof is Knowland’s all alone. He and only he among the public men is waging a campaign for a right-to-work law in California. Encouraged by excited business support in Los Angeles, Knowland has rejected discreet GOP suggestions the party would like to disavow his position and has thus willfully renounced the pro-labor, mildly-left contrivances by which the Republicans have been outsmarting the more numerous Democrats here for the last two decades. Democrats could vote for Earl Warren and justify it to their friends; the California Federation of Labor could support Goodie Knight as the pork-chops friend he was; but, as Susie Clifton of Brown’s staff says, “You vote for Knowland and you’re just not a Democrat.” Even though many California Democrats are Southern transplants, not many of them are expected to vote for such a high-steam partisan as Knowland. To the contrary, Brown appears to be getting Republican support, exactly as Warren won over many Democrats, with a middlish program.

The various California opinion polls have been one cause of Democratic confidence. Before the Knight-Nixon deal a Facts Consolidated poll showed Knowland winning over Knight for the GOP nomination, 51 percent to 28, and then over Brown, 46-31. A Los Angeles poll in October showed Brown ahead of Knowland 46-41. Late November, the deal jelled, and the California poll showed Brown ahead of Knowland 52-37. A Los Angeles newspaper poll in February showed Brown ahead in Los Angeles only 40-39. A poll of state legislators yielded a 63-43 prediction Brown would win. Brown held on to a 51-40 lead over Knowland in the California poll this March, Brown getting 79 percent of the Democratic vote, 13 percent of the Republican, and Knowland getting 80 percent of the Republican vote, only 11 percent of the Democratic. The poll also showed Engle ahead of Knight 48-43.

Of more importance than the polls may be the fact that the registration of new Democrats has been surprisingly heavier than of new Republicans for the June 3 voting. In Alameda, Knowland’s county across San Francisco Bay, Democratic registrations are up 25,000, Republican only 9,000. 19,000 new Democrats have registered in San Francisco against 4,000 new Republicans. In Los Angeles County, which has more than four out of every ten California voters, there are 116,000 new Democrats signed up to 45,000 new Republicans. San Bernardino figures show 2,000 new Democrats to a loss of 2,000 Republicans. In other key counties the figures follow the same pattern.

At the same time, the primaries are not expected to be decisive; the Republicans have as yet hardly fired a shot. Knowland has written friends that he plans to return to California and campaign intensely after the primaries and he is known to be a virile campaigner.

Since he is counting on an economic up-turn at mid- year he has taken almost no notice thus far of the recession. His friends know Brown holds the high hand and they must do something to outsmart him. Their problem is that their dealer is right-to-worker Knowland, humorless, grim. Earlier this year Palmer, addressing a stalwart band of Republican women at Solvang, observed, “I have never seen this state in a worse condition for the Republicans, with little hope that it will improve.”

Most obviously the national prestige of the Republican Old Guard is at stake. Knowland lost his votes on the bills to regulate labor unions which he sponsored in the Senate, but he cannot lose the office for which he has so boldly bid without seriously discrediting his party’s right wing. That wing, however, is not thin-feathered and would no doubt survive.

Knowland is understood to have agreed not to enter any I960 Presidential primaries. Perhaps this was a consideration for Nixon’s promised backing in the Governor’s race. (He said of Nixon on March 22, "I know of no one who is likely to contest the nomination with him. I am not a candidate for President") But Know- land has not said he would refuse a nomination. Several people close to him think he wants to make a good record as Governor and try for the Presidency in 1964, suspecting that I960 will be a Democratic year. A firm Knowland victory over Brown would make him a more serious challenger for Nixon in 1960, but no one seriously believes the Republican convention would nominate Knowland. Nixon, too, must have calculated, as he helped maneuver his 1956 convention foe, Knight, out of the Governor’s race, that even if Knowland wins, Nixon would be better off with Knight shunted off to the Senate or oblivion.

Knowland’s defeat would place Nixon in a commanding position two years hence. With Knight compromised and Knowland defeated, California’s GOP would have no leader left but Nixon, cleaned up from 1950 and bandaged from his heroic Latin American exploits. The only conceivable California obstacle left in his way would be Warren’s candidacy, and Pat Brown, for one, is certain Warren will never leave the bench for politics. Nixon would be best off if he could keep California Republican but make it dose. But this is like drawing to an inside straight. Fred Dutton, Brown’s campaign manager, wonders, "Is he that good—does he play ’em that dose?" Should Brown win, Nixon would have some explaining to do. Why did he fail to help Knowland when Knowland was in need? Does he want a California GOP united behind his own ambitions more than he wants a Republican California?

Defeating Knowland, Brown would become a national Democratic figure. “There is no question at all,” he told me in an interview to be reported subsequently, “if I beat Knowland I will be a force to be contended with on the national scene. I have made a definite and irrevocable commitment to serve out my office for four years. That doesn’t mean I won’t try to make the influence of the people who elected me felt nationally.”

 

CALIFORNIA’S role at the party conventions is pivotal: the state has wide open Presidential primaries, it sends the most numerous delegation next to New York, and its name is the first big state on the alphabetical roll call. These facts are not lost on national politicians. Dewey offered the Vice Presidency to Warren in 1942, and Warren accepted it from him in 1948; in 1952 Taft offered the Vice Presidency to Knowland, and Eisenhower to Nixon. Kefauver won the 1952 primary in California, and it took monumental effort to tear him off his steamy charger. Dutton says that since 1955 the Democratic candidates—Kennedy, Meyner, Humphrey—have been finding excuses to visit California about once every three months, making California a “regular Chautauqua for Presidential candidates.”

Brown is not to be a candidate in 1960, but Catholic John Kennedy of Massachusetts will be among the con- tenders. Brown, who 1956 delegates say worked for Kennedy’s Vice Presidential nomination in Chicago, is not committed for 1960, of course, and one finds it dif- ficult to see how he might reconcile a Kennedy liaison with his recent promise to California Negro leaders that he will take a Truman-type stand on civil rights at the convention. But if Brown is the favorite son in ‘60, as Dutton says, “Jeez, you could really trade around.”

It would matter to Democrats, too, in the Presidential voting if California had been enjoying a constructive Democratic administration for the first time this century.

This article appeared in the June 2, 1958 issue of the magazine.

 

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